Saturday, July 3, 2021

A Visit to CelluloidVille

I avoid film discussion forums.  I avoid them with a passion.  It would be nice to have a place online where people can come together to share their love of films.  A discussion forum that brings together film lovers could be a fun and friendly place.  But expressions of love on the standard film discussion forum is too often interrupted by grievances, disputes and insults.  I prefer to explore this problem without making a direct attack on a particular forum, so I will use a fictitious name for the forum that I will discuss today.  I will call it CelluloidVille.   

I have always gotten a great thrill out of a well-crafted theatrical drama.  Let me enjoy the action that is projected bigger than life on a movie screen and let me forget all of the petty drama that occurs off screen in my everyday life.  Seeing Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd battling it out atop the Statue of Liberty is far more exciting to me than seeing two moviegoers battle it out because one person bumped the other while making his way to his seat.  It is the bumping-into-one-another, stepping-on-toes sort of drama that occurs too often on the CelluloidVille forum.

First and foremost, I need to clarify that I do not fault the moderators.  Moderating these forums is a tough job.  I am almost certain that I couldn't handle the job.

Last year, a member of CelluloidVille started a thread entitled "Interesting Site for Rare Films," which let other members of the forum know about a website called Rarefilmm: The Cave of Forgotten Film.  It was a place where a person could go to download old bootleg films.  Scott Marks of The San Diego Reader wrote of the site: 

You’re bound to find something you like at The Cave of Forgotten Films, a one-of-a-kind website dedicated to criminally obscure anomalies and curiosities of cinema.  Most of the transfers were derived from VHS tapes, foreign imports not available stateside on DVD, and the hard work of fervid collectors with burners set to record at all hours of the day and night.

Another CelluloidVille member immediately announced that she would report the site to "a friend in Warner's legal department."  The site was shut down within days.  

I believe the majority of film fans share the opinion a Rarefilmm fan who wrote on Twitter: "So someone (or perhaps a group of someones) has done my friend Jon at @rarefilmm dirty and has forced the site to at least temporarily shut down.  Jon is the real MVP in terms of getting some hidden gems out of obscurity.  This recent development is such bullshit."

This matter does not begin and end with the perspective of the legal department.  Laws should reflect right and reason, but that is not always the case.

My 91-year-old mother lives near me.  Every day, I ride my bicycle to her home to have dinner with her.  I bring along a flash drive with old Hollywood films that I have downloaded from sites like Rarefilmm.  My mother and I eat dinner together and then enjoy a couple of films.  We have been doing this for the last three years.  My mother is a faithful viewer of TCM and she doesn't want to see films that she has seen on TCM dozens of times.  So, we watch obscure films that aren't available on DVD, aren't to be found on streaming services, and haven't aired on television for years (sometimes decades).  My mother and I were only able to watch The Blue Veil (1951) because a film fan recorded the film off a local television station in the 1980s.  It's wrong for films like this to disappear from view.  It's like padlocking the front door to the Louvre and saying that the public couldn't see the artwork inside for the next forty years.  It would only be a matter of time before art lovers broke down the doors.

A while back, my mother and I watched a copy of Rachel and The Stranger (1948) that I downloaded off a bootleg site.  The quality of the print was poor, but we didn't let this stop us from enjoying this charming little film.  Rachel and The Stranger depicts life in the Ohio wilderness during the 18th century.  Loretta Young and William Holden are a newlywed couple struggling to run a farm despite the interference of wild animals, bad weather and hostile Indians.  Robert Mitchum is a carefree fur trapper who shows up and develops feelings for his farmer friend's wife.  The film was RKO's most profitable release in 1948.  In the decades that followed, ownership of the film went through many hands – TransBeacon, United Artists, MBI, GenCorp, Turner Entertainment and Time Warner.  Turner Home Entertainment released a colorized version of the film on VHS in 1991.  I understand that, in the 1990s, the film sometimes aired on American Movie Classics and TCM.  Unfortunately, the film slipped into a black hole, where it remained for years.  It was during this period that my mother and I saw the film.

I was pleasantly surprised when, on July 21, 2020, a beautifully remastered print of the film came out on Blu-Ray.  I was not the only person to rejoice this long delayed release.  Roger Howerton wrote in a review on Amazon

Warner Archives has finally released a transfer of this RKO gem from 1948. . . and it's on Blu-ray!  This is one of those great films of the 40s that was previously only available on home video through bootleg copies, probably recorded on a VCR from a late-night television viewing.

Yes, these are the bootleg copies that I have been talking about.  Trust me, bootleg films aren't a bad thing.  As most film fans know, many great silent films survive because film collectors had bootleg copies safely tucked away in their collections.

It would have been nice for these beautiful films to be enjoyed by people who had been in lockdown for months and had to watch helplessly as major cities were being burned to the ground by rioters.  In my lifetime, I have seen this country steadily descend into lawlessness, but some people want to deprive a film fan of enjoying an old Gene Tierney film because it means a giant corporation won't make a few extra dollars.  

Last year, money from Hollywood bigwigs was used to provide bail to rioters, who quickly returned to the streets to continue their rioting.  If Hollywood doesn't care about other people's property, why should anyone care about their property?

Let's look at a bigger film.  Public Enemy was, according to Filmsite, "shot in less than a month at a cost of approximately $151,000."  Warner Bros has made a great deal of money from the film over the last ninety years.  Money has come from my grandparents, my parents, and me.  In the meantime, the film has become a part of the cultural landscape.  Can my son now watch the film without having to make Warner Bros richer?  Hasn't Warner finally made enough money off their $151,000 investment?  I might feel differently if the artists who made the film got some of the money.  The original Warner boys don't even make money from the film any more.  It's like Lipton repackaging the same teabag for ninety years.

I have a different opinion about remastered prints.  Warner remastered Public Enemy in 2014.  A critic wrote: 

Warner has provided a nice film-like transfer on this 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray.  The image features natural-looking grain, deep blacks, well-balanced contrast allowing proper delineation of shades of gray, and detail that is consistently impressive for a film from this era.  Even for viewers who have seen Public Enemy many times, I suspect this version will be a revealing experience, because the Blu-ray allows the viewer to savor every nuance of Cagney's expressively detailed performance in a way that has not been previously possible outside of a screening room.

This is, in a way, a new work and deserves remuneration.  Personally, I do purchase these discs.  But an old TV rip of Public Enemy is a different matter. 

My mother has been paying an exorbitant cable television bill for decades.  She only watches three channels: CBS, The Game Show Network, and TCM.  A portion of her payments have gone to TCM.  Would it be copyright infringement if my mother recorded a TCM broadcast and watched this recording on several occasions?  My mother has no ability to operate a recording device.  So, what if I do it for her at my own home?  What if another TCM fan does it for her?  Hasn't my mother paid for this broadcast many times over?   

I mentioned Gene Tierney before because I know a woman who came to a deep appreciation of the actress from films she downloaded from a Rarefilmm-like site.   Tierney had her greatest success while under contract with 20th Century-Fox in the 1940s.  20th Century-Fox hasn't tried to cultivate new fans for the actress in the last seventy years, but sites like Rarefilmm have fondly introduced the actress to new generations.  

The wonderful archivists at the EYE Filmmuseum are making their holdings available on YouTube.  This reintroduces forgotten filmmakers to the public.  I applaud this.  It benefits both artists and fans.  It is an ideal situation.  

Rarefilmm provided access to worthwhile films that film fans could not otherwise see.  Good for Rarefilmm.  

So, a film forum allegedly dedicated to film fans was responsible for taking down a website that brought great pleasure to film fans.  But this is not out of the ordinary for the forum.

The Messy Nessy blog published a wonderful article "Hunting for Harold Lloyd’s Legendary Christmas Ornaments."  But the CelluloidVille grouches were not kind about the article.  One wrote, "They didn't do much research on this, because the Hollywood Heritage Museum has displayed several of the large ornaments for several years."  Another chimed in, "The 'Messy Nessy' blog is often interesting, but when it isn't simply drawing material from other sources on the web the research isn't always the strongest."

You know, blow it out your. . . never mind.  

I am bewildered and frustrated by some of the people who find their way into online film discussions.  A film forum should, in the very least, attract people who love films.  Why are you here otherwise?  It's fine if you don't have too much knowledge of the films.  I would think that a fan would read a book or two about the films they love.  But, fine, it's not necessary.  I only get annoyed by people who have strong opinions based on little knowledge.   More than anything, I resent a person who pretends to be a film fan when their true purpose in life is to ruin other people's enjoyment of films.

I will never forget a question posted to a Facebook page that was, allegedly, dedicated to fans of film comedy.  The page was probably either The Funny Men or Dead Comedians Society.  The poster asked the film comedy fans if there was a popular comedian who had never made them laugh.  The question received a massive number of responses.  The thread went on for more than a week (maybe as long two weeks).  Scorn and ridicule was directed at the many of the greatest comedians in Hollywood history.  CelluloidVille did a similar thread, which asked members when they believed a director had "jumped the shark."  The vitriol flowed freely.  With fans like these, who needs enemies?

Then, you have the person who will launch into an outrageous rant just for attention.  "You know," this person will say, "Sean Connery is my least favorite James Bond."  I have never heard a more beautiful singer than Deanna Durbin.  But I learned recently that my good opinion of the actress is not universal.  A person said that he only watched Durbin's Because of Him (1946) due to a fondness he had for the actress' co-star, Charles Laughton.  He felt the need to clarify that he did not have a bit of fondness to spare for Durbin.  He noted, "Hate Deanna Durbin.  As soon as opens her mouth I fast forward until it looks like she's done singing."  I know a man who occasionally turns up in IMDb comments to vent his hatred of Robert Young.  Why?  I have no idea.  

You will find two types of fans in a film forum.  The first type is the fan who has a great passion, appreciation and devotion to classic films.  The second type is the casual fan who pretends to have a great passion, appreciation and devotion, but they really possess no more than a hobbyist's interest in films.  Their interest is as shallow as the interest a stamp collector has for stamps.  Joining a film group allows them to socialize.  It's not about the films.  It's an opportunity to persuade others that you are part of the gang.  

I have known a lot of good people in my life and, for a long time, I assumed that most people were just as good as they were.  But social media taught me that our world is occupied by many ignorant, angry and petty people.  This could be a modern phenomenon, I don't know.  These people can't come onto this forum to celebrate vintage films.  That would require them to have love in their hearts for those films.   But they have no love in their hearts for anything.  So, they denounce the films.  They denounce the directors.  They denounce the actors.  A simple tribute to Olivia de Havilland, who died on July 26, 2020, was disrupted by a heckler.  A moderator posted a masthead that read: 

In Memorandum
Olivia DeHaviland
Last 1930's Film Star

A member of the forum resented this tribute.  He wrote, "A long and noble career, but Jane Withers entered films a few years earlier, and was top-billed in a film released about three weeks after de Havilland’s debut. . ."  Being top-billed and being a star are not the same thing.  In any case, this is a disrespectful response to a heartfelt and well-deserved tribute.  Am I being too sensitive?  Maybe.  But I see too much of this. 

People are so broken and angry these days that they seize upon anything and everything as an opportunity to flare up, boil over, spew forth, or whatever else they can do to rid themselves of their evil spirits.  But life is too short for that sort of behavior.

I sometimes visit a forum about homesteading.  Often, visitors to the forum describe methods for people to grow their own fruit and vegetables.  It's a subject that I find endlessly fascinating.  It would be great if, some day, I could create a tomato garden in my backyard.  But the forum was regularly visited by a few disagreeable people who had nothing better to do than winge about this or that and generally disrupt the discussions.  I distinctly remember one member who attacked another member for the type of compost he used.  Finally, the moderator had all he could take and went on a campaign to ban the troublemakers.  At first, a few people expressed discomfort with these efforts.  They evidently didn't believe there should be a restraint on free speech in any context.  Even speech on gardening is somehow vital to American liberty.  Give me cabbage or give me death!  Their opinions weren't even valid.  Many affirmed that they had used the same compost and had done very well with it.  Understand, the people who were banned were the sort of people who are reasonably shunned by others in everyday life.  It's fair and natural to keep your distance from people who have lousy opinions and poor attitudes.  After two weeks, the free speech people admitted that the forum had benefited from the bans.  The discussions were now more productive and pleasant.  

Don't get me wrong, banning people is a tricky thing.  I certainly don't endorse banning people for their political opinions on the large social media platforms.  But a different rule should apply to small, non-political specialty forums, which are more sociable media than social media.

Richard Roberts is the sort of film fan that I admire.  He expresses the exact qualities that one should expect from a film fan: passion, knowledge and appreciation.  But he got frustrated with people on NitrateVille (yes, the real name of the forum) and he argued a great deal.  Believe me, I relate to his frustration.  In the end, he got banned.  That was the moderators' right.  Mr. Roberts rejected my registration for his own forum, Silent Film Mafia.  That was his right.  I have never complained.  But I value what Roberts has to say more than I value the film forums' compost critics. 


I have one other complaint about CelluloidVille, aka NitrateVille.

Robert Greenblatt, Chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment, pulled Gone with the Wind from the HBO Max streaming service.  A spokesperson for HBO Max told CNN Business that Gone with the Wind is "a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society."   He added, "These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible."  

It is obvious that this was a way for Greenblatt to proclaim his virtue to the Black Lives Matter rioters.  But did they really care?  I doubt a single rioter has seen Gone with the Wind.  Not one looter who took home a big screen television looked forward to watching Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh kiss in widescreen, high-definition splendor.

Who is Greenblatt?  Greenblatt made his money producing family-friendly sitcoms for a black audience.  He produced those sitcoms, The Hughleys and One on One, between 1998 and 2006.  Considering his success with the black family sitcom, it is odd that he took action as NBC chairman to issue a boycott of The Cosby Show, which is the most popular and trendsetting black family sitcom of all time.  That is biting the hand that fed you.

The NitrateVille forum did not prove to be the last bastion of opposition when the mob came after Gone with the Wind.  Many of the forum members, themselves, were quick to denounce the film.  Let me tell you about people like this.  If someone brought them the last copy of Gone with the Wind along with a box of matches, they would know instantly and exactly what they had to do.  Without hesitation, they would set the film ablaze and watch quietly as it burned to ashes.  They are willing to do anything to prove their virtue to a mob of idiots and lunatics.  The greatest films ever made were made during the era of Gone with the Wind.  These films were Cinema.  Today's films are not Cinema.  Yet, the mob is hungry to destroy those films.  A true fan would stand against the mob.

Death, as ruthless as ever, has been thinning out the ranks of old time film fans.  The less consumers means the less demand.  The less demand means the less supply.  Film companies don't care much about an eighty-year old film in their library unless it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock or stars The Marx Brothers.  As long as the old films are still around and a few old people are still around to enjoy them, it is important that this relationship is respected by others.  The subject stirs in me a Biblical passion.  "Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder."  I should be permitted to enjoy these great works without the ugliness and insanity of the modern world intruding.  I shouldn't have these films taken away from me as a new forbidden pleasure.  

So, let's discuss the scenes in Gone with the Wind that are the most offensive.  To start, there's a scene where. . . no, wait, nothing offensive happens in that scene.  Now, let me think.  Oh, yeah, there's a scene early in the film where. . . no, no, there's nothing offensive there either.   You know, I can't point to these terrible "racial prejudices" and "racist depictions" that have Greenblatt so upset.  Let's face it, his complaints about the film are so vague as to be meaningless.

I do not apologize for great art.  I am simply thankful that it exists.  I will always favor artistry over idiocy.

HBO Max returned Gone with the Wind to their streaming service with a new introduction by Jacqueline Stewart.  Stewart offered the following disclaimer:  

The film paints the picture of the Antebellum South being a romantic idyllic setting that has been tragically lost to the past. . . [It presents] the Antebellum South as being a world of grace and beauty without acknowledging the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based.  The film represents enslaved black people in accordance with long-standing stereotypes: as servants notable for their devotion to their white masters or for their ineptitude.  And the film's treatment of this world through a lens of nostalgia denies the horrors of slavery as well as its legacies of racial inequality.

Beauty and brutality have always coexisted side by side in the world.  The existence of one does not deny the existence of the other.  It invariably depends on your perspective.  

The great Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci painted The Mona Lisa sometime between 1503 and 1506.  At the time, Italy was at war with France.  The Italian Renaissance, which produced major works from da Vinci and other great artists, peaked at a time when domestic disputes and foreign invasions created epic turmoil and tragedy in Italy.  But we don't see that tragedy in The Mona Lisa.  The wars are raging outside of the frame and have no immediate relevance to the woman in the painting.  Scarlett O'Hara is the woman who occupies the frame of Gone with the Wind.  The film is about Miss O'Hara and focuses intently on her perspective.  When Margaret Mitchell wrote the novel, oral histories were an important reference source.  Margaret's grandmother, Annie Fitzgerald Stephens, and a number of other elders provided the author with their own personal eye-witness accounts about the Civil War and Reconstruction in Atlanta.  It is believed by those who have researched Mitchell's life that Scarlet O'Hara was specifically based on Mitchell's grandmother.

Kirk Douglas and Gina Rowlands in Lonely Are the Brave (1962) 

Scarlett is meant to be one Southern Belle, not all Southern Belles.  That's what political fanatics don't understand.  Take, for instance, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who has gone down in Hollywood history as a cranky political fanatic.  Lonely Are the Brave (1962), based on a Trumbo script, is an empty and pretentious film.  The actors stand not as fully formed characters but as abstract symbols.  Gina Rowlands is not a specific woman.  She, instead, represents womanhood, or motherhood, or something else much bigger and vaguer than the character she plays.  Looking at this film is like looking at an abstract portrait.  Is that an eye?  Is that a hand?  Is that a leg?  You can look at Lonely Are the Brave and be similarly puzzled by what you're seeing.  Is that a motive?  Is that a plan?  Is that an emotion?  

Those who attack Gone with the Wind are upset that it isn't a protest film.  But that's not what the film was ever meant to be.  James Baldwin wrote in his 1955 essay "Everybody’s Protest Novel," "The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization which is real and cannot be transcended."

Sharif Khan of The Daily Wire wrote:

. . .  Baldwin’s essay takes aim at the famous protest novel, Native Son, written by his friend and former mentor, Richard Wright.  Suffused with communist ideals, most of Native Son amounts to didactic slop, as Baldwin rightly points out.

Wright’s zeal to infest his work with overt political tropes effectively ruins the novel.  Characters lack dimension and the plot stumbles toward the absurd.  Most importantly, it's bereft of any real sense of humanity.  The novel reads more like a political pamphlet or a fictional exercise in communism than a piece of genuine literature. . . The decidedly superficial aspects of ourselves are what must inherently define us now according to the Left — be it our skin color, ethnicity, or sexual preference.  We are stripped of the deeper, more essential qualities of our collective humanity.

Zoe McIntyre of The Culture Trip wrote:

Oscar Wilde disagreed with the idea that art needs to be virtuous or that an artist needs to have a moral stance.  In the preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, he wrote, "No artist has ethical sympathies.  An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style."

I remember with disdain Norman Lear's protest sitcoms of the 1970s.  These shows weren't funny much of the time and they were rarely honest.  In the 1974 Good Times episode "The IQ Test," thirteen-year-old Michael Evans insists that his school's IQ test is racist.  He says: 

They ask questions on the test like this: 'Complete the following phase: cup and. . .'  And you have to choose from four words: wall, saucer, table or window.  You know what my friend Eddie put down?  Cup and table, because in his house they don't have no saucers to put under the cup.

In my home, we didn't drink tea and we didn't have saucers.  I drank Hawaiian Punch out of Flintstones jelly jars.  But I knew what a cup and saucer were.  I knew what petticoats were although they were worn in another century.  I knew what a koala bear was even though this was an animal that lived on another continent.  Should an IQ test be based on what a student sees every day in his own home?  An IQ test doesn't measure your intelligence by making sure you know your Uncle Albert's favorite brand of beer.  Besides, I doubt the cup and saucer question ever appeared on an actual IQ test.  And, more important, the episode is not funny.  It's just a desperate attempt at propaganda. 

Modern films are specifically designed for purposes of social engineering.  A man on Twitter said that old films did the same.  He referred to John Wayne films (although he failed to name a specific film).  Openly celebrating established and widespread social values, which many old films did, is not social engineering.  Social engineering is an attempt to bring about social change by manipulating viewers into replacing steadfast values with new dodgy values.  Social engineering is deceitful, subversive, and calculated.  There is no concern to create art or entertainment.  The purpose is to change the thinking of the viewer.  That was not what Howard Hawks had in mind when he made Red River.  That is not what David O. Selznick had in mind when he made Gone with the Wind.  The film is a character study.  It is the story of an ill-fated romance.  It is not a slavery lesson.  The fact is that slaves play a scant role in the film throughout its four-hour running time.

Gone with the Wind is criticized for sugarcoating slavery.  These same critics prefer the arsenic-coated depiction of slavery that Alex Haley provided in RootsRoots was presented by the author as a factual account of his own family's history.  Kunta Kinte was, according to Haley, part of his ancestry, just as Scarlet O'Hara was part of Mitchell's ancestry.  

But Haley lied.  He plagiarized much of what is in the book (as determined by a 1977 lawsuit) and he was found to have fabricated a whole lot more.  But Roots has become a protest novel and a protest novel does not need to be accurate.  

So, Mitchell is accused of being deceptive while Haley remains revered.  Interviews with 2,300 former slaves were conducted by The Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s.  The interviews were compiled into a paper entitled "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project."   The narratives do more to support Mitchell's vision of plantation life than Hailey's vision.  I personally do not know what daily life was like on the old Southern plantations.  But neither do you.  I just know that slavery was wrong and Gone with the Wind never in any way tries to justify slavery.    

Certainly, nothing is stereotypical in the powerful performance of Hattie McDaniel as the devoted Mammy or and the amusing performance of Butterfly McQueen as the inept (and deceitful) Prissy.  Roger Ebert wrote:

One does not have to ask if the Slaves saw [The Antebellum South] the same way.  The movie sidesteps the inconvenient fact that plantation gentility was purchased with the sweat of slaves (there is more sympathy for Scarlett getting calluses on her pretty little hands than for all the crimes of slavery).  But to its major African-American characters it does at least grant humanity and complexity.  Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, is the most sensible and clear-sighted person in the entire story (she won one of the film's eight Oscars), and although Butterfly McQueen, as Prissy, will always be associated with the line "I don't know nothin' about birthin' babies," the character as a whole is engaging and subtly subversive."

David Vincent Kimel of On Earth As It Is wrote: 

[I]f my reading of one pivotal scene in the film is correct, Butterfly McQueen may have even one-upped and preempted Clark Gable’s infamous "Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn" by mouthing "Fuck you" to Scarlett O’Hara before explicitly singing about her hope for liberation from slavery.

McQueen manages in her unique and spirited performance to bear little resemblance to the Stepin Fetchit stereotype, which is presumably on Stewart's mind.

During this period, black actors were often cast as servants in films.  The black butlers, porters, doormen and waiters became entangled with the traditional servant character, which had developed many fixed qualities during its long history in the theatre.  A servant can be good, which is to be virtuous and obedient, or a servant can bad, which is to be rebellious and resistant.  Devoted or disloyal, what else could a servant be?  The ancient novel "Odyssey," which was written sometime between 675 and 725 BC, features a disloyal maid named Melantho, who is ultimately hung by her master's son for her treachery.  Shakespeare had many servant characters in his plays.  Michelle M. Dowd, a professor of English at the University of Alabama, wrote that Shakespeare depicted the concept of service as both "ideal and indignity."  She found that Shakespeare used servant characters to "[comment] on upper-class characters."  He had the clownish servant, the servant who is unfailingly loyal and honorable, and the servant who is deceptive and unreliable.  In Shakespeare's "Othello," Iago states:

We can't all be masters, and not all masters should be followed.  Look at all the devoted servants who work for their masters their whole lives for nothing but their food, and then when they get old they’re terminated.  They ought to be whipped for being so stupid.  But then there’s another kind of servant who looks dutiful and devoted, but who's really looking out for himself.  By pretending to serve their lords, these men get rich, and when they've saved up enough they can be their own masters.  Guys like that have soul, and that's the kind of guy I am.  Let me tell you.

Black actors often played frightened servants.  

Mantan Moreland in Dressed To Kill (1941)

But the frightened servant goes back to the days of the commedia dell'arte.  Here, a German-American actress, Violet Knights, plays a frightened servant in the spooky old mansion film The Phantom (1931).

Here, Joan Davis plays a frightened nurse in The Great Hospital Mystery (1937).

This fuss about Gone with the Wind has nothing to do with racism.  The Black Lives Matter and Antifa rioters are tearing down monuments simply for being monuments.  We are no longer allowed to commemorate our ancestors.  We must erase our history to make room for a dark new age.  Gone with the Wind, a film of historical and artistic importance, is a monument of a great bygone era of American film and it must be taken down for no other reason.  

A forum member, Ed Lachmann, wrote: 

This seems ironic as it was BLM who defaced and tried to burn down a synagogue in L.A.'s Fairfax District after smashing windows, robbing and destroying many Jewish owned businesses along the avenue and even stopping to deface and topple gravestones in a nearby Jewish cemetery.  Kristallnacht seems in fashion again, just extended.  Ask the parishioners who watched Jesus, Mary and a saint who cared for leprosy stricken Native Americans toppled just weeks ago by the mob.

Another forum member, Red Bartlett, wrote: 

The current book burning, desecration, cancel culture, etc. is not about protecting people from "hateful content" or anything lofty and holy like that.  Anyone can produce a list of hateful things that isn't getting banned, desecrated or burned.  So there's no need to waste your time and intellect on that discussion.

What this is, is an attempt at a communist revolution.  I know, sounds crazy. But that's what it is unfortunately.

In order to be successful it has to remove some obstacles.  The first is to denigrate the host - which is America.  They're attempting to shame Americans, Western culture and YOU into giving up western, capitalist ideals.  So this is the shaming and fear process.

The HBO executives are the same people who later applied an "offensive content" warning to The Muppet Show.  Should I really take them seriously?

This reminds me of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?.  Spike Lee found out he had an ancestor who had been a slave.  When the man was freed after the war, his former master gave him money to buy a farm located next to the plantation.  The friendly gesture surprised Lee.  Why would a plantation owner buy a former slave a farm and why would the former slave want to be a neighbor to his former master?  Mars Woodall, a state archivist, told him that these relationships were complicated and it was likely the former slave and his former master had once played together as children on the plantation.  Lee could never come to terms with that, just as the people who protest Gone with the Wind cannot accept the affection that Scarlett and Mammy show towards one another.  In their mind, the film needed to show Scarlett stringing up Mammy by her wrists and whipping her to acknowledge the brutality of slavery.  (Scarlett does at one point threaten to "whip the hide off" Prissy.  It comes across as an empty threat, but those words are admittedly harsh nonetheless.)

A film historian should, in every way, be devoted to the preservation of vintage films.  The preservation of vintage films is at odds with groundless denouncement and abandonment of vintage films.

Film preservation comes in two parts.  The first part is the physical preservation of a film.  But there is far more to a film than its physical elements.  We must also protect a film's artistic vision - its style, its ideas, and its sentiments.  We must respect a film both in body and spirit.  

I take delight in watching Buster Keaton's The Playhouse.  But the nihilist declares the film to be racist due to a blackface scene and seeks to have it erased from public view.  The physical film is preserved, but the film is lost to us nonetheless.  

There is a form of mental illness on display in online film discussions.  The problem is that some people try to hold two contrary opinions in their brain at the same time.  It can't be done.  The brain simply can't handle it.  You cannot believe in radical leftist politics and still love old films, which provide a traditional conservative perspective of the world.  Here is a line of thinking that will cause your brain to blow a gasket: "I love vintage films.  I believe in progressive ideals.  Old films are great art.  Old films are racist, sexist and homophobic."

You are not a custodian of classic films if you describe yourself cringing, gasping and retching while watching these films.  You cannot be a custodian of classic films if you see these films as problematic.  "Oh, dear, I saw this terrible movie last night!   There was one scene that made me shudder.  The horrors!  I'm getting faint just thinking about it.  Claudette Colbert was buying a newspaper from a black man and she called the man 'boy.'"  I actually remember someone complaining about this in a forum.  She was, as I recall, describing a scene from It Happened One Night.  I am not aware of a black man selling newspapers in that film.  I am, however, aware of this scene.   

I am also aware of a similar scene from You Can't Buy Everything (1934).

Tony Curtis calls an undeniably adult bellhop "son" in No Room for the Groom (1952).

What this woman is really saying is "Listen to me!  I am virtuous!  I am relevant!  I am saying the right things!  Please!  I am virtuous!  I am relevant!"

Ethnic comedy played a dominant role in vaudeville and burlesque.  Take a look at this Variety review of a 1907 show at Sid J. Euson's Theatre in Chicago:

William Colton appears as a conventional Irishman, exaggerated to absurdness in makeup and funny in buffoonery. . . Murray Livingston is expressive and commands a good dialect in an eccentric German part suggesting Louis Mann and Sam Sidman.  His conception is legitimate in makeup and peculiar in style.  He has ability and could carry the part to more prominence with better material.  He is too mechanical as a Hebrew.

Filmmakers long relied on stereotypes and typecasting to communicate in shorthand to the viewer.  It isn't only the ethnic stereotype (which existed for every ethnicity), but many other types of stereotypes.  Take, for instance, the stereotype for the cabdriver in old films.  Actors like Frank Faylen made it a specialty to play grumpy and garrulous cabdrivers.  In the same way, Edward Gargan turned up often as a cop on the beat.  

Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937)

Hit the Ice (1943)

Wonder Man (1945)

Dangerous Partners (1945) 

Harry Hayden made repeated appearances as a train conductor.  In the end, black stereotypes in film were not designed to rationalize racial oppression. 

Rings on Her Fingers (1942)

The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949)

The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)

Union Station (1950)

Powerful groups have guarded against film studios maligning racial groups from the earliest days of film production.  As early as 1919, the British Board of Film Censors banned films that "[insisted] on the inferiority of the colored races."  

I have seen a vast number of old films, but my viewing habits have left me with a blind spot here and there.  Take, for instance, Lincoln Perry.  Perry, a black actor known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit, achieved success playing a lazy, slow-witted comic character in films of the 1930s.  For most of his film career, Perry was under contract with Twentieth Century Fox, where he often performed his comic antics in support of Will Rogers, Shirley Temple and Charlie Chan.  These are not films that that generally attract my interest.  So, even though some people imagine Perry was dragging his feet through every old Hollywood film, I have rarely taken much notice of him.  

Perry developed the Stepin Fetchit character on the Chitlin' Circuit, a series of theatres that provided a venue for black entertainers to perform exclusively for black audiences.  It is important to understand this.  The character was designed by Perry, himself, to get laughs from a black audience.  It was not created by evil white studio executives to mock black people.  Perry was not a tool of the Hollywood establishment to bring about the systematic denigration of the black man.  It just didn't happen that way.

Some people have taken to defend the actor in recent years.  Roy Hurst of NPR wrote:

Comedian Jimmy Walker knows something about being accused of perpetuating a negative stereotype. His portrayal of J.J. Evans in the sitcom Good Times was criticized as a return of the minstrel show.

"The way they make it sound, it's like black people are permanently harmed by Stepin Fetchit," Walker says. "And I don't agree with that - I don't think it's a bad character. I think it's a funny character." Walker points out that the Fetchit character is actually a subversive trickster - he never got around to fetching anything.

A black actor who has often caught my attention is Clarence Muse, who is a dignified and well-spoken alternative to Stepin Fetchit.  It could be argued that he is the anti-Stepin Fetchit.  

Hell's Highway (1932)

The Mind Reader (1933)

The Sun Shines Bright (1953)

Other black actors followed Muse's example.

Jack Carr in Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940)

Clarence Muse, Elzie Emanuel and Ernest Whitman in The Sun Shines Bright (1953)

George Reed in Pride of the Marines (1945)



Film sources:

The Mind Reader (1933)
The Sky's the Limit (1943) 
Welcome Stranger (1947)
Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940)
Third Finger Left Hand (1940) 
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Pride of the Marines (1945)
Body and Soul (1947)

An all-black cast was featured in MGM's widely acclaimed 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky.

The cast included Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne and Rex Ingram.

This is not to say that black actors had equal opportunity in Hollywood in 1939.  Take, for instance, Willie Best.  Best, a black comedian compared often to Perry, acted with an exceptional charm and a natural ease.  Sometimes he performed as a lead support and sometimes he performed as a bit player, but he always found a way to get laughs no matter how long he was on screen.  And, no matter how long his scenes were, they never seemed long enough.  

Best was in demand at every major studio.  He appeared in 124 films between 1930 and 1949.  But the actor was severely restricted in the types of roles he played.  He started out being cast as sleepy servants, which wasn't much different than the roles that Perry played, and he was never allowed to move too far beyond that.  He eventually went from sleepy servant to frightened servant.  

It is unfair that Best was never given the opportunity to star in a film.  The comedian had great success as Bob Hope's easily frightened sidekick in the horror comedy The Ghost Breakers (1940).  This should have been a breakout role for him.  But Best continued to play easily frightened sidekicks in other horror comedies - Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1940), The Body Disappears (1941), The Hidden Hand (1942), Scattergood Survives a Murder (1942), A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Whispering Ghosts (1942) and The Monster and the Ape (1945).

So, if you look hard enough, you can find wrong in Hollywood's treatment of black actors on and off screen during this period.  But let us not indiscriminately visit every ill of this sort upon Gone with the Wind, or It Happened One Night, or so many other great films of the era.  I am determined to defend these films even if many alleged film fans won't.

Reference Sources

Stanley Crouch, "How to use slavery for art and profit," New York Daily News (February 10, 2014).   

Michelle M. Dowd, "A Place in the Story: Servants and Service in Shakespeare's Plays," Renaissance Quarterly, Volume 59, No. 2: 643-645 (Summer 2006).

Roger Ebert, "Gone With The Wind," Roger Ebert (June 21, 1998).

Caroline Gerdes, "The Question Of 'Roots' Accuracy Is Complicated," Bustle (May 30, 2016).

Roy Hurst, "Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's First Black Film Star," NPR (March 6, 2006).

Don Kaplan, "Amazing 'Roots' returns after 40 years, dredging up Alex Haley plagiarism scandal," New York Daily News (May 19, 2016).   

Sharif Khan, "Cancel Culture’s Failure: James Baldwin’s Famous Essay Exposes The Left's Flawed Logic," Daily Wire (November 16, 2019)

David Vincent Kimel, " Fuck You, Scarlett O'Hara: Gone With The Wind's 'Prissy Revisited," On Earth As It Is (March 4, 2015).

Edward Kosner, "Myths That Changed America," Wall Street Journal (December 27, 2015).     

Messy Nessy, "Hunting for Harold Lloyd’s Legendary Christmas Ornaments," Messy Nessy (December 9, 2020).

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